Category Archives: Plants

Signs of Spring: Flowers & Leaves

Purple deadnettle in Schenley Park, 1 April 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 April 2020

Spring keeps coming to Pittsburgh in fits and starts. In the last week we’ve gone from +22 F degrees above normal (29 March) to -3 F degrees below normal (31 March) and yet the flowers and leaves keep coming.

To illustrate I took two photos of the same sedge in Schenley Park. The buds on 27 March burst open two days later in 77 degree heat.

Sedge buds, Schenley Park, 27 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sedge blooming, Schenley Park, 29 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaves are starting to pop, too. Yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) have their first leaves …

… and these reddish, toothed, compound leaves are opening on shrubs along West Circuit Road in Schenley Park. It’s a cultivated alien I can’t identify.

Compound leaf of cultivated shrub in Schenley Park, 31 Mar 2020 (not sure what it is; photo by Kate St. John)

There are also flowers in the trees: Northern magnolia, crabapple buds, blooming (invasive) Callery pear, and flowering cherry.

Northern magnolia, Schenley Park, 27 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crabapple buds, Schenley Park, 31 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Callery pear in bloom, Pittsburgh, 31 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering cherry, Pittsburgh, 1 Apr 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

I am so grateful that Schenley Park is still open.

Please keep physical distance in the parks or our parks will close as have those in other parts of Pennsylvania!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Signs of Spring, 18-23 March

Crocuses blooming in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 March 2020:

Around the world, more and more of us are under Stay At Home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yesterday Governor Wolf announced that eight PA counties — 45% of Pennsylvanians — must Stay At Home through 6 April. Fortunately residents are permitted to “engage in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking or running if they maintain social distancing” — i.e. stay at least 6 feet apart.

So I’ve been going outdoors alone … especially when the weather is drizzly, cold or gray because no one else is out there. I’ve seen lots of birds including red-winged blackbirds, hundreds of American robins, eastern phoebes, a brown-headed cowbird, a golden-crowned kinglet and a merlin(!) in Schenley Park.

I’ve also photographed some signs of spring, 18-24 March 2020. Flowers are blooming in Greenfield’s neighborhood gardens, above and below.

Daffodils in my neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The earliest trees are beginning to leaf out including the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) in Schenley Park.

Bud on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
New leaves on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cornelian cherry trees (Cornus mas) are in bloom at Schenley. Photos of the whole tree and a blossom closeup.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) tree in bloom, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) in bloom, 22 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yet the rest of the forest is still quite brown. The smaller American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) stand out with dry pale leaves. Photo from afar and a close-up.

A small American beech stands out with its papery dry leaves. Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Papery leaves of a American beech, Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Getting outdoors is not cancelled.

Stay safe.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Signs of Spring This Week

Daffodil blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2020

Spring is coming ready or not. Take a breather from COVID-19 news with some signs of spring. My friends and I have gone outdoors alone, then emailed updates and photos when we get home. Here’s what we’ve found.

Yesterday Donna Foyle found snow trillium and scarlet cup mushrooms at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)
Scarlet cup mushrooms, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)

I’ve been to Schenley Park, Raccoon Creek, and Moraine State Parks where I’ve seen daffodils, coltsfoot, alder catkins, red maple flowers, and spring beauties. See the captions for descriptions, locations, and dates.

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 8 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alder catkins, Schenley Park, 11 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Red maple blooming in Greenfield, 14 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty at Racoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, an audio treat. Wood frogs and spring peepers were calling at Moraine State Park on Sunday afternoon 15 March 2020.

Getting outdoors is not cancelled!

Just maintain a safe distance from each other (6 feet) and wear muck boots. It’s mud season.

(photos & video by Donna Foyle and Kate St. John)

Does Spring Still Move 13 Miles A Day?

Crocuses blooming in Germany, early March (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a rule of thumb from the last century that says “Spring moves north 13 miles a day.” On average this means that if crocuses began blooming in Morgantown, West Virginia a week ago they ought to start blooming in Butler, PA today.

However this year’s spring is so early and so hot that I’m wondering if the rule is still true. The animated map below shows spring leaf out moving north from 1 January through 10 March 2020. Some days spring leaps many miles.

Spring Leaf Index as of 10 Mar 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

According to the USA National Phenology Network, spring is many weeks ahead of schedule, particularly in the eastern US. It’s “three to four weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Washington, DC and New York City are 24 days early, Nantucket is 30 days early.” Wow!

Leaf out in Pittsburgh began in early February, tulip leaves emerged in late February and I saw the first crocus bloom last week.

So what do you think? Is spring moving faster than it used to? Or just sooner?

Follow the signs of spring at the USA National Phenology Network and Journey North. Here are some cool maps that track what’s going on:

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; map from USA National Phenology Network; click on the captions to see the originals)

Despite The Cold, An Early Spring

Honeysuckle buds March 2019 vs Feb 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

Except for a 10 degree cold snap in the last 24 hours, we’re having an early Spring.

So far this year temperatures in Pittsburgh have been 10-34 degrees above normal a third of the time. January 11 was 34 degrees above normal at 71 degrees F.

Honeysuckle bushes responded by leafing out. Last Monday (10 February 2020) I found open honeysuckle buds in my neighborhood. I took a similar photo last year on 11 March 2019 but it was whole month later and the buds were not as open.

According to the USA National Phenology Network, Spring is three weeks ahead of schedule in the southeastern US:

Spring leaf out has arrived in the Southeast, over three weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Charlottesville, VA is 24 days early, Knoxville, TN is 20 days early, and Nashville, TN is 18 days early.

Status of Spring

Here’s what it looks like on the map as of 14 February 2020.

Spring Leaf Index as of 14 Feb 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

Despite the cold, today will warm to almost 40 degrees in Pittsburgh and to 52 by Tuesday. I think we’ll still have an early Spring.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from

Quiz: What Are These?

Quiz #1 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today a Quiz. Here are two super sharp photos of plants from very different families. What are they?

Quiz #1: The top photo is a focus stack of 100 images. In real life the image would be 2mm wide so I think it’s been magnified about 80 times. (This one is hard to guess. It helps to squint your eyes to make it look small.)

Quiz #2: The photo below is a focus stack of 70 macro images. What it is?

Quiz #2 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re desperate for clues, click the links on the captions to view the photo descriptions. Here’s a clue for #2: It’s edible.

Have an idea? Leave a comment with your answer.

p.s. In case you’re curious … Focus stacking is a digital processing technique in which the photographer takes multiple images of the same object at different focal points, then digitally merges the photos to produce a completely in-focus image. The object has to hold still and so does the camera. It requires special software to merge the images.

This video shows how it works.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Leaf Buds For Dinner

Brussels sprouts, plucked and on the stalk (photo by Kate St. John)

When I bought this stalk of Brussels sprouts, I wondered about the wild plant it came from. Did you know that cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all the same species? Every one of them is a cultivar of Brassica oleracea, also called wild cabbage.

Wild cabbage is a biennial that grows naturally on limestone sea cliffs in Europe. In its first year it’s a rosette of leaves. In its second year it blooms. As you can see by the flowers, it’s a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae).

Wild cabbage plant and flowers (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Ten thousand years ago humans foraged for wild cabbage leaves. At the dawn of agriculture we began to cultivate them. One thing led to another, as described at Wikipedia:

  • Our preference for leaves led to kale and collard greens as cultivars.
  • We liked the tightly bunched leaves and the terminal leaf bud so we cultivated cabbage from the first-year rosette.
  • The Germans liked fatter cabbage stems so they cultivated kohlrabi. It’s not a root, it’s a bulbous stem.
  • People liked the tasty flower buds of the second-year plant so we cultivated cauliflower in the 1400s (flower is in its name) and then broccoli.
  • In Belgium they preferred the small leaf buds that grow in the leaf axils, so they bred Brussels sprouts in the 1700s.

While they’re growing, Brussels sprouts are nestled in the leaf axils like this.

As the stem gets taller the lower leaves turn yellow and fall off. Farmers and gardeners usually remove fallen leaves or prune them back.

Sometimes the weight of the plant bowls it over.

Brussels sprouts in a field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually the plant is harvested and we buy Brussels sprouts in the store. Mmmmm! Leaf buds for dinner!

p.s. Did you know that Brussels sprouts are sweeter if they’re harvested after frost? Alas, most are harvested before that.

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Outdoors in Early January

Privet berries, North Park, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes we think Pittsburgh is boring in January but there’s still a lot to see outdoors. On New Years Day I joined the Botanical Society of Western PA for a walk in North Park. Here’s what we found.

Above, black privet berries (Ligustrum genus) stand out against the sky. Privet, an invasive plant, is found at the old farm along Irwin Road. The house and barn no longer stand but ornamental trees and shrubs remain, including the Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) we always trek to see. Our hike leader, Richard Nugent, said it will bloom pink in February. Here’s a bursting bud.

Ozark witchhazel buds, North Park Irwin Road, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unusual trees caught our attention, some with burls, others with holes. Two of the best are pictured below.

Large burl at North Park, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
A heart-shaped hole, North Park Irwin Road, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

We also saw and heard red-tailed hawks circling overhead. (example photo below)

Two red-tailed hawks soaring in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In January they claim territory with lots of circling and screaming. Here’s what they sound like. No, that is not the sound of an eagle.

During winter expect the unexpected. There’s more to see than you’d think.

(plant photos by Kate St. John, red-tailed hawk photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

So Many Robins!

American robin at an ornamental fruit tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 December 2019

Have you noticed it, too? There are so many robins in Pittsburgh right now!

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are versatile birds. They change their diet from insects and earthworms in summer to fruit in winter. They don’t care if it’s cold but they need lots of food in winter so they migrate more in response to food than to temperature.

Most robins move south in the fall but some remain north in large flocks that wander in search of abundant fruit. They choose Pittsburgh in December because we have lots of fruit on our native trees, ornamentals, invasive vines, and shrubs.

Here are just a few of the items on the robins’ menu.

Oriental bittersweet, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)
Bradford callery pear fruit, Pittsburgh, Nov 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ornamental fruit tree, Dec 2019 (photo by John English)
Hackberries, a native tree (photo by Kate St. John)

When the fruit is gone and the ground is frozen, the robins will leave. I expect that to happen in early January.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and John English. Robin migration quoted from Journey North.)